From Where I Stand
A few nights ago, my wife and I watched a wonderful film called CODA. Seventeen-year-old Ruby is a child of deaf adults (CODA) and is negotiating some of the complexities of coming of age and charting her own course alongside some fairly unique familial obligations. Her parents and brother (who is also deaf) rely on her to interpret the outside world to them. They need her to be present on the fishing boat where they earn their living, to monitor radio communications, listen for warning, etc. They need her to attend meetings and sign what’s going on for them. Ruby is quite literally the ears of the family.
Ruby also loves to sing and is coming to discover that she has a real talent for it. Her choir teacher encourages her to pursue this gift. It brings her joy and confidence. She meets a boy in the process. I won’t give away too much of the story but suffice to say that the main narrative trajectory of the film traces the various collisions and intersections of Ruby’s desire for independence and self-discovery with her deep love for her family and all the burdens she carries on their behalf.
One of the sad ironies of the film is that Ruby’s family has no access to one of her deepest passions in life. They attend her concerts and are thrilled to see her on stage, but they can’t hear her voice. They try to read the reactions of others; they clap and stand when others clap and stand. But they’re mostly guessing. There are places they can’t get to in each other’s experience of the world. Ruby’s family obviously can’t know what it’s like to live and move in a world of sound. And Ruby can’t ever fully know what it’s like to move through the world as a deaf person. They live in different worlds.
Watching CODA led me, naturally (ahem), to a reflection on standpoint epistemology. A few weeks ago, Yascha Mounk had a fascinating conversation with Oxford philosopher Rachel Fraser about this very thing. Standpoint epistemology basically says that what you know is determined (or at least heavily influenced) by where you stand. Or, to put it another way, our context shapes what and how we come to know things in the world. For example, there’s no way for a relatively privileged white, straight, male to understand what it’s like to be a poor, black, queer woman. We inhabit different realities that are inaccessible to the other. We stand in different places.
We could multiply the examples, obviously. Here in Canada, we’ve just been through a horrendously expensive and mostly pointless federal election that pretty much gave us the status quo for a few more years. One of the enduring features of the political landscape in Canada is an intractable regionalism. We have separatists in Quebec, liberals in central Canada, conservatives in the more rural outposts of the West, all determined to stake out their political territory. Can a grain farmer in rural Saskatchewan know what it’s like to be French-speaking urban Montrealer? And vice versa? Can a deeply conservative Muslim immigrant inhabit the experience of a secular progressive Vancouverite? Or do the places we stand render us unintelligible to the other? Do we, in the end, simply live in different worlds?
I’m just enough of an optimist to say, “no.” I say this for one very specific reason. The most basic command that Jesus ever gave his followers, the way he summarized one of the most foundational ethical requirements of the life of faith, was the command to love our neighbours as ourselves. This bare command requires the ability, the imaginative capacity to place ourselves in the experience of one another, even when we are formed in very different ways, even when our ways of living in the world are profoundly shaped by the places we stand. Jesus seems to assume not only that we can do this, but that we must.
And I have had enough experiences with quite radical difference to really believe that no matter how different we might be, we are all, in the end, human beings. It sounds like a tired cliché, I know. But it happens to be true. We can’t ever fully enter the experience of another person, but we can get part of the way. All it takes is a bit of empathy, a bit of curiosity, a bit of openness. And a bit of confidence that we, too, have something worth sharing from where we stand.
There are two very moving scenes near the end of the film CODA (I know I said I wasn’t going to ruin the story but, well, I suppose I sort of will anyway). The first comes after Ruby’s choir concert. Back at home, her dad is sitting outside, looking at the stars, pondering this new world that his daughter is making her way in. Ruby comes outside to join him. They look at each other knowingly for a while. They both seem to know that something important has changed in their lives. Ruby’s dad asks Ruby to sing for him. As she begins to sing, he places his hands on her neck, around her vocal chords. She keeps on singing. He doesn’t hear her voice, but he feels it for the first time.
The second is when Ruby is auditioning for a spot in a music college. She’s feeling alone and struggling on an intimidating stage. And then, her parents and brother sneak into the balcony (against school policy) to watch her audition. Emboldened, she sings out with strength and conviction and joy. The song is beautiful. Even more beautiful is what Ruby does partway through her audition. She starts to sign along with the words she’s singing for her family. She helps her parents to enter her world, her experience, even if in a partial way.
And this is all we can do, isn’t it? To help each other to see what we see. To try to see what others see, even if it’s not easy or doesn’t come naturally. To love our neighbours as ourselves.